Portraying the occupied as hateful and the occupier as peaceful

27Oct13

The New York Times recently published an editorial by Yuval Steinitz, an Israeli politician and Knesset member for the Likud party, under the headline “How Palestinian hate prevents peace”. It is not necessary to elaborate on the argument that Steinitz presents in this article, as the title speaks for itself.

Zionists have often repeated this strange mantra, portraying an occupied people as hateful and belligerent and an occupying military power as peaceful and tolerant. Although engaging in a serious critique of this abusive logic ends up giving it some legitimacy, analysing its purpose is still useful because we learn that it says a lot more about Israeli society than it does about the Palestinians.

Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jewish writer and post-colonial activist, sought to understand the psychological impact of colonisation on both the occupied and the occupier. In his book The Colonizer and the Colonized, published in 1957, he observed that, “Having chosen to maintain the colonial system, [the coloniser] must contribute more vigour to its defence than would have been needed to dissolve it completely. Having become aware of the unjust relationship which ties him to the colonized, he must continually attempt to absolve himself. He never forgets to make a public show of his own virtues, and will argue with vehemence to appear heroic and great.” What this means is that the performance is more important to the actor than it is to the audience.

All settler colonial projects are founded on racist principles that attempt to justify the domination of one people over another, and these racist principles are also systematically woven into the resulting regime of power. As Memmi argued, “Racism is ingrained in the actions, institutions, and in the nature of the colonialist methods of production and exchange. Political and social regulations reinforce one another.”

And this racism can take many forms, oppressing others on the basis of their perceived skin colour, culture, religion, language, ethnicity or what have you. No matter which discriminator is chosen, in all of these cases the racism is deeply embedded in the resulting social and political systems, often in subtle ways. However when the native resists or the colonial project is threatened, then this racism becomes more visible and prominent, which perhaps helps to explain Israel’s growing racism problem.

During Israel’s elections earlier this week, racism was ubiquitous in local politics. As Jonathan Cook reported for Al-Jazeera English, “Jewish parties, including local branches of the ruling Likud party, adopted openly racist language and fear-mongering, suggesting an imminent Muslim takeover of Jewish communities in a bid to win votes.”

According to Mohammed Zeidan, the director of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth, “Israeli society has become more and more racist, and the candidates are simply reflecting this racism back to voters knowing that it will win them lots of support.” Since this popular support is based more on a commitment to Zionism than to any one politician or political party, this is a nationalistic framework that helps racism to flourish.

For example, the Los Angeles Times reported in August that Shimon Gapso, the right-wing mayor of Upper Nazareth, a planned Jewish town overlooking the largest Arab city in Israel, actually organised a poster campaign against his own re-election, featuring “pictures of leading Arab Knesset members and leftist Israeli politicians, with slogans like ‘Throw the mayor out,’ and ‘We must get rid of Shimon Gapso’,” in order to justify running a racist counter campaign, with one poster reading, “Upper Nazareth will be Jewish forever. No more shutting our eyes, no more grabbing on to the law allowing every citizen to live where they want. This is the time to defend our home.”

In another example, Likud ran on a platform promising to ban the Muslim call to prayer in Jaffa. Election posters for Likud also promised to “Return Jaffa to Israel”, a not so subtle threat of ethnic cleansing. Sheikh Ahmed Abu Ajwa, an imam in Jaffa, responded to the threat by saying, “We were here – and so were our mosques – long before Israel’s creation. If they don’t like it here, they are welcome to leave.”

But while Palestinians would be happy to co-exist with more respectful Jewish neighbours, Cook says that the annual Israel Democracy Index, published this month, found that 48 per cent of Israeli Jews do not want an Arab neighbour at all, and “44 per cent favour policies to encourage Palestinian citizens to emigrate from Israel.”

However Israel’s racism problem is not limited to only hating Palestinians. Last week, The Nation published an explosive documentary produced by David Sheen and Max Blumenthal entitled “Israel’s new racism: The persecution of African migrants in the Holy Land,” which described how asylum seekers from Africa are facing hatred and discrimination in Israel today. Many of these refugees are either deported or are being detained in a secretive prison that is thought to be the largest immigrant detention centre in the industrialised world. In the film, one Israeli addresses an anti-immigrant protest by saying, “Start rounding up the infiltrators” while another shouts “It’s our right to be racist.” The film also documents what happens to those Israelis who confront this prejudice. In one example, an Israeli man tells an Israeli woman, “May you be raped, amen!” Another Israeli man shouts, “You are married to a nigger, get out!” One former member of the Knesset for the “centrist” Kadima party even testified that those Israelis who advocate for African asylum seekers should also be locked up inside the prison camps.

Of course racism in Israel is nothing new. While political Zionism was one response to the horrific anti-Semitism that dominated the European landscape in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hatred that tragically resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews during World War II, the Zionist project was ultimately established in a land that was already populated by humans, thus a racist logic was necessary to justify the killing of Palestinians, dispossessing them of their lands, and ethnically cleansing their presence.

And this fear and hatred that fuelled the Zionist settler colonial project was not only directed at Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but also towards the Arab Jews who emigrated to Israel either by choice or political necessity after the realisation of the Zionist project violently dislocated their identities: no longer trusted in their own Arab communities, and yet unwanted by the state that claims to be the homeland for Jews.

During the 1950s, Arab Jews who immigrated to Israel were treated inhumanely in comparison to European Jews, even held in camps constructed by the Zionists, which is quite shocking considering the experience of European Jews only one decade earlier.

In “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the standpoint of its Jewish victims”, Ella Shohat, an American scholar of Iraqi Jewish descent, explains that many children of Arab Jews died as a result of their difficult migration to Israel, quoting one doctor as saying: “I can’t understand why in all the European countries the immigrants are provided with clothes while the North African immigrants are provided with nothing.” The tough journey for Arab Jews coming from Yemen and their experiences in the camps also led to mass deaths and chronic illnesses, leading one Zionist to conclude that, “there is no need to fear the arrival of large numbers of chronically ill, as they have to walk by foot for about two weeks. The gravely ill will not be able to walk.”

Once Arab Jews did finally arrive in Israel, the ethnic discrimination continued. According to Shohat, some reports suggest that doctors, nurses and social workers trafficked thousands of Arab Jewish babies for adoption to European Jews in the USA and in Israel, “while telling natural parents that the children had died.”

Recalling her own family’s experience in “Coming to America: Reflections on hair and memory loss”, Shohat recalls that “In Israel we were called ‘dirty Iraqis’. I can still hear the Hebrew words ‘Erakit Masrihi!’ (‘Stinky Iraqi’) shouted at me by a blonde boy whose relatives in Europe were themselves turned into ‘sabonim’ – soaps – by the Nazis.”

Shohat also describes how “Iraqi, Yemeni, and Moroccan refugees in the 1950s were welcomed to Israel with white DDT dust, to cleanse them, as the official Euro-Israeli discourse suggested, of their ‘tropical diseases’. In the transient camps, their hair was shaved off, to rid them of lice. Children, some of them healthy, were suspected of ringworm, and were treated with massive doses of radiation. You could tell those who were treated by the wraps covering their heads, covering the shame of hair loss.” Some of these children again suffered hair loss many decades later after undergoing radiation treatment for the cancerous brain tumours that were caused by the original chemical cleansing.

Once “cleansed” of their Arab and African identities, Arab Jews were settled in “remote villages, agricultural settlements, and city neighbourhoods,” often in crowded conditions because the Zionist authorities deemed them to be “accustomed” to such living standards. The new Israeli immigrants were subsequently marginalised by the state in terms of social services. Today this ethnic segregation continues with many Arab Jews residing in the southern regions while wealthier European Jews live in the north.

A documentary series that aired on Israeli television this past summer illustrates how racism against Arab Jews is still prevalent across Israeli society. Called “True face: The ethnic demon,” the series highlighted some shocking statistics. While Arab Jews make up more than half of the Israeli Jewish population, they comprise only one out of every four students and just nine per cent of senior faculty. And while around 90 per cent of senior judges are European Jews, most prisoners are Arab Jews. The media is also dominated by European Jews. The journalist who created the series, Amnon Levy, who is of Syrian origin himself, suggests that the only way for Arab Jews to “make it” in Israel today is to marry a European Jew and to sacrifice his or her culture.

So considering that racism in Israel targets not only Arab Jews, Christians and Muslims, but also African Jews and asylum seekers, as well as any Israeli who supports them, it is quite obvious that Israelis are the ones who have a hatred problem that prevents any lasting peace. And Israelis do know this, which is why they will continue making vehement public statements about their peacefulness, openness and tolerance, all the while standing behind their tanks, checkpoints and apartheid walls.

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